House Democrats vent frustration after Biden reversal on COVID-19 emergency measure

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House Democrats are sounding off against the White House after President Biden indicated he’ll sign legislation to lift the national emergency declaration surrounding COVID-19 — a move that came less than two months after Democrats had opposed the same measure en masse at the administration’s request. 

Almost 200 House Democrats had voted on Feb. 1 against the Republican proposal for an immediate repeal of the emergency designation, after the White House warned it “would create wide-ranging chaos and uncertainty throughout the health care system.” Administration officials said they needed a longer wind-down window, and would remove the designation unilaterally on May 11. It passed the House 229-197 with 11 Democrats voting in favor.

Yet Senate Democrats on Wednesday brought the same repeal proposal to the floor, where it passed easily by a vote of 68 to 23, and a White House official said Biden would sign it into law.

The president’s shift in position caught House Democrats off guard, and a number of lawmakers — particularly frontliners, who are facing tough reelection contests next year — were quick to air their frustrations when they learned the news Wednesday evening. 

“It’s frustrating,” said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.). “At best it’s [an] unacceptable lack of clarity in their message to us. I mean, if they’re gonna take the position that they didn’t explicitly say he would veto it in the [Statement of Administration Policy], you know, that’s not good. This is a problem. And, you know, we’ve got to have some conversations because this — they’ve got to do better.”

“I find it surprising and I’d like to see a little more consistency,” said Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas). 

The White House’s flip-flip on Wednesday brought back memories for some members of a similar situation at the beginning of the month, when Biden said he would sign a resolution to block Washington, D.C.’s revised criminal code despite the administration putting out a statement earlier that said it opposed the measure.

A total of 173 House Democrats had already voted against the legislation, a position they thought was in line with the White House. The announcement sparked howls among House Democrats who felt blindsided by the White House’s change-in-tone.

Some Democrats said the problem with the COVID-19 resolution isn’t the practical implications of passing the bill, since Biden was planning to repeal the emergency designation in less than a month and half. Rather, they’re frustrated with what they see as a lack of communication between the White House and its allies on Capitol Hill. 

“Clearly we’re going to need a better line of communication,” said another Democrat. “You should talk to some of the frontlines; the frontlines are the ones whose heads explode.”

The Hill talked to some frontliners, and while no heads exploded, there was plenty of frustration bubbling up. 

“It’s obviously frustrating … to put us on the spot unnecessarily,” said one of those lawmakers, who requested anonymity to criticize an ally. 

Declared in March of 2020, the national emergency designation empowered the Trump administration, and later the Biden administration, to tap special powers under the National Emergencies Act for the purpose of fighting COVID-19. Biden had used that authority to help states and localities fight the virus, largely through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and to launch his controversial effort to forgive student loans, which is currently tied up in court. 

The national emergency is distinct from the public health emergency designation, declared in January of 2020, which grants the administration additional powers and access to resources — a designation that fueled the Title 42 authority to expel migrants arriving at the Southern border. The administration is expected to sunset the public health emergency on May 11. 

Washington’s emergency response to the pandemic has been an explosive issue on the campaign trail, where Republicans have bashed Biden for overreaching in his response at the expense of individual liberties and the nation’s fiscal health. And GOP operatives wasted no time on Wednesday highlighting the House vote in hopes it becomes a liability for vulnerable Democrats at the polls next year. 

“Once again, House Democrats are showing voters how extreme they really are, while House Republicans continue keeping their promises to the American people,” Courtney Parella, spokeswoman for the Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican PAC, said in a statement.

Republicans were similarly quick to use the D.C. crime bill vote as a way to paint House Democrats as soft-on-crime. The code would in-part eliminate most mandatory sentences and lower penalties for a variety of offenses, including carjackings and robberies.

The National Republican Congressional Committee announced a new ad campaign less than one week after the president’s announcement, targeting 15 House Democrats for their vote in opposition.

“Murderers given reduced sentences. Carjackers given slaps on the wrist by pandering politicians. Not just the DC City Council,” the ad says. “173 House Democrats voted for reduced sentences for violent crimes. So crazy even President Biden won’t support the anarchy.”

“What’s next? Defund the police,” it continued.

Democratic leadership, for its part, is brushing off the recent dust-up as a non-issue because of the looming COVID-19 national emergency expiration date, which the administration announced earlier this year.

“It’s almost April, my understanding is the Biden administration had set out May 11 as the date. So I think from a time perspective it just doesn’t really matter because whether it’s May 11 or sometime in April, it’s all around the same,” said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), the vice-chair chair of the House Democratic caucus.

Doggett said the COVID-19 national emergency and D.C. crime bill situations were “very similar,” but a second House Democrat suggested that they were not blindsided this time around because of the prior episode.

“Blindsided would imply that it’s completely unexpected; given this most recent experience with the D.C. crime bill I guess I’m not overly shocked but just disappointed,” the lawmaker said.

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House Democrats vent frustration after Biden reversal on COVID-19 emergency measure

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